Tom Clevenger moved to Joseph after retiring as a fire captain in Costa Mesa, Calif. In June he stepped down as the Joseph fire chief. He said he will remain with the department as a firefighter. (Chuck Anderson photo)
Tom Clevenger brought Southern California expertise to rural fire fighting
The beauty of the Wallowa Mountains attracts thousands of visitors every year — sometimes in the strangest ways.
Tom Clevenger was shopping for his niece at a Toys R Us near his home in Costa Mesa, Calif., when he landed on a jigsaw puzzle with landscape photographs. He took the puzzle home, and on closer inspection, discovered one of the pictures was of a barn, mountains and harvested grain — the barn at the corner of Eggleson Lane and Highway 82. He’d never heard of Wallowa County so he looked it up on the Internet.
Clevenger was going to retire soon from his job as a fire captain and he and his wife, Denise, were looking for a second home.
“When I came into the county I thought, “Wow! This place is beautiful. I think I found a place where we could buy.”
In 2002, they bought a home outside of Joseph and settled into rural Eastern Oregon life.
A retired firefighter doesn’t stray far from the work he loves. Shortly after moving to Wallowa County, Clevenger joined the Joseph Fire Department. He said his love for emergency work started as a kid watching “Emergency!” a television show featuring paramedics in the line of duty.
Clevenger said “Emergency!” spawned a whole new kind of emergency response in “real life.”
“Before that show, there wasn’t really anything like that. The fire department had an ambulance. They would show up, put oxygen on (a patient) and go to the hospital,” Clevenger said.
That changed by the time Clevenger became a firefighter.
“We had five paramedic engines and each of those had two paramedics for three truck companies and everybody had to be an emergency medical tech. If we got a medical call or an accident run, we would be there first and 75 percent were medical calls and traffic accidents.”
By day, his firefighters would work out, conduct building inspections and do training drills. Through the fire inspections, Clevenger said he was privy to the inner workings of the city’s buildings — everything from the performing arts center to a 21-story high rise.
“We would do business inspections, check exits and fire extinguishers. At the performing arts center, we would go back stage to inspect all the load-ins when companies from around the country came to perform,” Clevenger said. “It worked out real well because a couple times (on a fire) we knew exactly what the building was like.”
When not inspecting Costa Mesa’s businesses, Clevenger led his firemen in training exercises. A particular favorite, which he brought to the Joseph Fire Department, was ladder training.
“I was a truck captain for a long time, and when we had spare time we trained on ladders. We would go up on a building and walk around on it to know what the roof was like and how it was made. You have to know that in the middle of the night — where to stand and where not to stand,” Clevenger said.
When he was elected fire chief in Joseph, it became a joke during their Thursday evening trainings, “Hey! Let’s do ladders!” Clevenger would say to the department.
His tenure as fire chief was respected by many. Chuck Anderson, Wallowa Lake Rural Fire Protection District president said, “Tom’s comprehensive experience as a paid professional firefighter has brought the city of Joseph and the whole area a new level of firefighting expertise.”
It’s not unusual for the county’s fire departments to work together. Paul Karvoski, Enterprise fire chief, has worked with Clevenger quite a bit over the years. “Since he’s come on, he’s done a lot of changes in that department and we are working and training a lot more together,” Karvoski said.
Working together not only puts more hands on deck, but can save money. Karvoski said four of his firefighters went through a certified ropes rescue course along with the Joseph department and they share an Air Cascade unit that they use to refill their air packs.
The rural departments also work in tandem with the Oregon Department of Forestry. Joseph Fire assists with the fire protection at Wallowa Lake and has a mutual aid agreement with the state.
Matt Howard heads up the fire crews for the state out of Wallowa.
“We have had strong communication, and Tom has been a very good cooperator through our dual protection at the lake. Under his leadership, he’s been an incredible aid with a lot of the human- caused fires in the upper valley. We have saved a lot of acres and dollars with quick response.”
Last month, Clevenger stepped down from his role as chief and Jeff Wecks was elected to take his place. Clevenger said he will remain with the department as a firefighter, but will have more time now to be “retired.”
Clevenger said, “I think I made a difference. You have to enjoy what you’re doing.”